Courtyard of Glendon College

During the last weekend in September, I had the good fortune to be able to attend my first – I hesitate to call it this, for reasons that should become apparent – academic conference hosted at the Glendon College campus of York University in Toronto.

It’s true that academics organized this conference – several energetic PhD students from York & University of Toronto spent over a year putting it together. It’s also true that a good number of academics attended it – there were scholars from universities across Canada and even in the States. And, in terms of organization, scholarship, presentation, and professionalism, I am sure the conference rivalled any others that are set within the academy. But to call this particular gathering an academic conference is to undercut somewhat its very reason for being, which was to consider history – and how history is done – beyond the walls of the university, at the level of community.

The organizers named this conference “Active History: History for the Future” and their welcome statement in the conference booklet summarizes well its non-academic spirit: “The conference themes…address the ways in which historians and other scholars must do more than produce knowledge for peer-reviewed journals and academic monographs, must do more than present at academic conferences, must do more than require oral interviewees to sign ethics forms and read over transcripts.”

Having read, and lamented with my peers, about the gaping divide between public history and academic history, having wondered myself whether the history that I might participate in producing as a public historian will ever be, or be considered, as “valid” as the histories generated by those within academia, attending this conference felt a little bit like coming home.

Public history is not, of course, exactly identical to active history – the latter, as I understand it, is an approach to history that self-consciously attempts to understand the past in order to change the present and shape the future. But if the field of public history itself does not seem to me to be quite as socially and politically driven in its usual incarnations (which is not to say that it can’t be), in many ways, these two kinds of approaches to doing history overlap. I noticed this just in the vocabulary of the conference, in the key words and concepts that were articulated again and again, words like:

community; stories; narrative; engagement; accessibility; dialogue; communication; digitization; interactivity; teaching; multimedia; creativity; audience; collaboration; negotiation; inclusivity; participatory; partnerships; networks; reflexivity; and material culture – just to name some.

Most of these are not words that typically describe academic history, but they’re words that I get excited about. And it was heartening to see that there is a large network of researchers, both university-based and community-based, just as excited too.

So, what did I take home from the conference? The following were some of my observations, in no particular order.

Creativity counts.

Actually, it doesn’t only count; it seems crucial in any project geared towards presenting the past to the public. The good news is, there seems to be countless ways to be creative.

One engaging way is through food. Karim Tiro, from Xavier University, shared about an exhibit on the history of sugar that he’s planning. The twist? It’s going to be set in a public food market – a civic space, he said, where the community gathers and makes itself visible – instead of within a traditional museum setting with its oftentimes authoritative curatorial voice, which can be distancing. Such markets, he said, are great spaces to share history because people are naturally interested in food. His project strikes me as an innovative way to approach important historical issues – like slavery, like politics – through something people are intimately familiar with. And Karim is turning that on its head too. His goal: to make the familiar unfamiliar, and thus to hopefully engage.

Outside the box is the place to be.

Conference attendees were keen to think beyond the boundaries of traditional history, whether it was ivory tower history, glass-encased history (i.e. in museums), or mainstream history. The desire is to move away from only producing manuscripts sprawling with footnotes, or only accessing traditional archives that are silent when it comes to the histories of those who didn’t leave written records, to recognizing the importance of oral histories, personal stories, and other ways of understanding the past, especially as it relates to marginalized groups. This desire was interestingly expressed in the very methods of some of the presenters themselves.

Eva Marie Garroutte of Boston College illustrated how one could craft a research methodology based on a particular cultural practice within a community, and, in so doing, to include the research subjects in the history-making process. This meant that we had a chance to learn about the Cherokee Stomp Dance and to hear about how methods of research could incorporate structural elements from this cultural practice. Mary Breen of the Second Wave Archival Project presented on feminist history and allotted some of her presentation time to reading directly from excerpts of oral history transcripts. The result? We got to hear stories in the voices, cadences, tones of the female participants themselves (including the humorous story of one woman who, throughout her marriage, always kept some “running away” money on her – just in case).

Community research = respectful research.

Lillian Petroff of the Multicultural Historical Society, who conducts oral histories of members from various communities, expressed the stakes so well: “When people agree to be interviewed,” she said, “they are putting the meaning of their lives in your hands.” So she’s careful to approach her interviewees with respect, always as subjects, never as objects, and the result is that she often ends up forming lifelong friendships. Her goal is to build relationships and engage in dialogue. Lillian made an interesting point that because oral history has often attempted to mirror written history, it has often not been about conversation. And I won’t readily forget her provocative admonition not to “pimp” as a researcher: using your subjects, getting what you need, and then exiting.

Audience matters.

Indeed it does. Speakers and participants talked spiritedly about making history accessible, interactive, and engaging. Creative ways for drawing an audience, especially one that might not be interested in history at the outset, were discussed, from holding meetings in museum spaces (which is far less intimidating than being asked to go visit a museum) to bringing history out onto the streets (using posters, for example) to hosting community events that spark interest in the histories of one’s own neighbours (like holding “antique roadshows” where members can bring items for “show and tell” and, possibly, donate them!).

Two is better than one.

Active history, public history, is not isolated history. Collaboration – not only with academics, but with community members, community-based researchers, members of historical societies and of other relevant organizations – is crucial. Heather George, a fellow UWO Public History student, (bravely) stated the need for us to realize that academic historians have one way of approaching history, community members have another, equally valid, way, and that we must work at incorporating both in any historical narrative. Lisa Helps, one of the organizers from U of T, articulated this as the need for collaborative methodologies. We left thinking about the importance of developing networks and partnerships with diverse people and groups, and of the need to share resources, knowledge, and expertise. The resounding idea is that good history in the public realm will always be collaborative – and transformative too, for both participants and researchers, as Lisa expressed.

Technology is your friend.

Not surprisingly, digitization was mentioned over the course of the conference. So were websites, GIS mapping, and even YouTube. Perhaps the only key word of the digital age I expected to hear but didn’t was Wikipedia!

Lorraine O’Donnell, an independent historian, put it nicely when she referred to the web as a “repository for personal and community memory and history,” and stressed it as a resource that we should all work towards using. And James Cullingham, owner of Tamarack Productions, in his “how-to-make-a-living” advice to us Public History students in particular, threw out the word “multiplatform”: can the project, he asked, be conceived as something that can be watched on a cell phone, on the web, or on television? (The answer should be yes.)

Reflexivity is always important.

Craig Heron of York University emphasized the need for us to think more about how people learn. Beyond just slapping text on an exhibit panel or on a website, he said that we need to consider how information is created and what message people leave with. Being aware of one’s practice, of how one communicates, even of power imbalances, were important themes that resurfaced throughout the conference.

And, finally, not to forget that history in the public realm can be contentious:

Politics happens.

Rhonda Hinther from the Canadian Museum of Civilization talked about the challenges of producing history in museums. Certain histories are seen as just too controversial or too political for museum settings. Or they’re simply not the kinds of history that attracts a crowd. Thus, “doing history in a federally-funded setting,” she said, “can be uncomfortable.” One has to be pretty creative to slip in “other” histories and to be prepared – for clashes with administration. But it can also be very rewarding. For Rhonda, I think, part of the reward is to be called a “subversive curator” at the end of the day.